In light of Amanda Parer’s installation, Intrude, being shown at Liverpool’s Exchange Flags, Sumaya Kassim considers the environmental and cultural devastation of white colonialism in Australia.
Giant rabbits, illuminated in the stark white light, have been taking over the planet…
A rabbit stares up at the clock tower and stands on its giant inflatable hind legs. Another lounges, its floppy ears trailing to the ground. Round and round children run, laughing, throwing their arms wide, as parents snap pictures. Illuminated, the rabbits sit or recline, a spectacle of white marshmallowy huggable cuteness. Innocence. And yet the rabbit stares at the clock that alerts us to the surprisingly serious and prescient themes outlined in the interpretation.
In her oversized inflatable artworks, Amanda Parer considers the relationship between humans and the environment. Parer grew up in Australia, where rabbits are a non-native species and considered a serious pest. She describes the contradictory connotations of the rabbit:
They represent the fairy-tale animals from our childhood – a furry innocence, frolicking through idyllic fields. Intrude deliberately evokes this cutesy image, and a strong visual humour, to lure you into the artwork only to reveal the more serious environmental messages in the work. They are huge, the size referencing “the elephant in the room”, the problem, like our environmental impact, big but easily ignored.
Are the rabbits the ‘elephant in the room’? Or can we read them as gesturing towards a much larger elephant, which is the silence around whiteness even as giant images of literal white innocence stand before us? As I watched people admiring the rabbits, I wondered how many of them thought of their ancestors and their fellow whites, the settlers, as unwanted intrusions. An intrusion into geographical space and temporal space with cataclysmic consequences. I imagined most were oblivious because, even if they had read the interpretation, most would be unaware of Britain’s role in the colonisation of the rest of the world. Central to the audience’s enjoyment is their obliviousness, a performance of innocence that characterises whiteness, an innocence that relies upon wilful ignorance. And nowhere is this clearer when discussing environmental crisis.
Not Anthropocene, but Apocalypse
Parer’s Intrude explores two ostensibly opposing images of whiteness: whiteness as pestilence and whiteness as homemaking. Though Intrude is specific to the Australian landscape, the rabbits’ presence in Liverpool’s Exchange Flags provokes questions that are rarely given space in the public domain. We can ask of white people the same question we ask of the giant illuminated bunnies: what are you doing in Australia, in South Africa, in the Americas? How did you get there? We might ask: what networks of care and global imaginings do white people rely on to continue their global domination? In her review of artist Kiara Flowers’ film, writer Fauziya Johnson considers the colonial legacies of Liverpool, particularly of its opulent town hall. She writes:
Since 1700 in the sailing of the first ship with 220 enslaved Africans, Liverpool was the major controller of trade until the abolishment in 1807. Liverpool’s domination soon overtook powerhouses such as London and Bristol during this development, securing 80% control of the British slave trade, and around 40% of the entire European slave trade.
One of the rabbits stares up at the town hall clock as if asking, how much longer do we have? Empire’s time is only over if we look at Empire through English eyes. Colonialism structures national borders, citizenship, who does and does not matter, and these are all tied to race. Liverpool, as with many of England’s cities, have yet to reckon with their role in exporting anti-blackness, dehumanisation and colonial values through colonial conquests and settler colonialism across the globe, as they extracted resources and exploited and enslaved millions. For some of us, time has already run out.
Since the first European settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, nearly 99% of the country’s native grasslands have disappeared. Environmental crisis is almost always presented as a shared problem with a single source: human beings. The entrance of human beings on the world stage is known as the Anthropocene. However, this erases the role of colonialism and capitalism in decimating whole peoples, violently restructuring our relationships with ourselves, the environment and each other. Françoise Vergès’ essay ‘Racial Capitalocene: Is the Anthropocene racial?’ offers a summary of this discussion, showing how ‘most theories of the anthropocene have failed to reckon with the ways in which racism and imperialism structure the uneven distribution of climate catastrophe’. For many, apocalypse has already happened, and it took the shape of white people making contact with indigenous communities and unleashing violence through colonial technologies such as genocide, cultural erasure, kidnapping, trafficking, the plantation.
Whiteness as homemaking
Framing environmental crisis as a “human” crisis rather than the entrance of white supremacy on the world stage erases the way in which inequalities developed and continue to evolve through the exploitation and extraction of land resources. Environmental crisis is often framed as universal because this allows for white nations to maintain their stranglehold over the Earth’s resources, writing off the land rights of indigenous people. Australia is founded on colonial values which rebrands settler colonialism as the innocent, inevitable process of (white) homemaking, whilst any non-white migration is perceived as an alarming threat. In this white reality, Australia treats aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders lives as an inconvenience. Writer Nayuka Gorrie writes of white settler ‘entitlement’, showing how the invocation of ‘Australian values’ to police its borders requires ‘wilful historical amnesia’: ‘the very boats your ancestors came on while denying the rights of other people on boats is breath-taking’. They continue:
To the white settler who feels entitled to this country, Aboriginal people are inconvenient. Our existence is a reminder of the cost of their existence that they would prefer to ignore. To be disenfranchised on your own country is a strange feeling.
Considering images of pestilence and comparisons with animals are usually reserved to BIPoC migrants, Intrude is an unusual display of white dispersal as pestilence: out-of-control, refusing realisation, refusing accountability, bringing with it disease, death, grief, loss, environmental crisis. Migrants are the ones frequently described as hordes and masses. Refugees ‘swarm’ the white nation. BIPoC populations must be ‘kept under control’ and ‘breed like rabbits’. White dispersal and white mobility is naturalised, whereas the mere existence of BIPoC is suspicious, criminalised, alien. Indeed, colonial ideas – mastery, domination, greed – are a virus infecting and impacting how we develop our relationship to the environment by buying our tacit acceptance of corporate ownership and extraction.
We must centre indigenous knowledges, languages and epistemologies in order to have any hope of repairing our relationships with each other and the environment.
Intrude can be read as an allegory of white mobility as homemaking; the rabbits originated from England, and now they have come home. It dramatizes how white dispersal and their (violent) arrival is naturalised, the violence neutralised. We’ve been trained to look unquestioningly at this reality. We are groomed to accept it as preferable, safe, secure. A civilising mission. For instance, the wording of rabbits being ‘introduced’ to Australia by settlers in 1788. ‘Introduce’ captures the ostensible innocence of the settlers, a thoughtlessness and carelessness that somehow, inadvertently led to environmental crisis. Here, destruction is narrated as a by-product, an unfortunate unforeseen consequence that exists beyond the picket fence, held by white national borders with militant and military force.
In another article, Gorrie writes of the violent ambivalence of the state when it comes to the environment, particularly sacred sites. They gesture towards the Australian values, unstated yet apparent in the state’s actions, which persists in its attempts to eradicate aboriginal cultures, languages and lives under the guise of ‘development’ or ‘safety measures’. Movingly, Gorrie writes:
Despite attempts to kill us off, assimilate us, we are still here. This truth is a thorn in the colonial side. As our physical human form persists, our land and our claim to it too remains. Despite land theft, pollution, “development” and unsustainable white farming practices, sacred places still exist.
For us to talk of saving the environment without centring aboriginal and indigenous lives and perspectives is not only unethical, it’s suicide. Our only hope is to listen to the people who lived on their lands for generations without destruction or decimation, to make and honour treaties. We must centre indigenous knowledges, languages and epistemologies in order to have any hope of repairing our relationships with each other and the environment.
This is not about individual blame, but historical and present day accountability. Environmental crisis doesn’t belong to all of us equally. We must follow the white rabbit into the past, recognise how we continue to make the same mistakes over and over. One cannot look at the rabbits without thinking of the Stolen Generation, the aboriginal children kidnapped and forcibly relocated by the Australian government over a period of decades. White settlers did everything they could to decimate, destroy and undermine aboriginal and Torres Strait islander lives – and continue to do so. White people care about the environment because it is easier to care about what impacts their communities, and white people have long been told their community begins and ends at home, the (white) nation.
We must ask ourselves confronting questions about community, kinship, and not simply about what makes a nation a home, but the world. We must be mindful of how global mass incarceration is mirrored by white mobility, white safety, white homeliness. In order for us to inhabit, who must we disinhabit? What definitions of togetherness, of oneness, of our relationships with each other and our environments must be distorted, ripped from our tongues and our hearts? In order for whites to feel at home, who must be rendered alien? Who must die for white comfort? It’s easy to say ‘we’re all connected’; it’s much, much harder to act as though we are interconnected, to each other and our environments. How can there be redemption if oppression continues? Until those in power want the Earth as a home for all of us, it will be a home for none of us. Until all are free, none of us are free.
(Environmental crisis and the loss of biodiversity is being explored by various Australian artists, notably Australia’s 2018 Biennale Repair and the 2019-2021 touring exhibition Violent Salt, curated by Claire Watson and Yhonnie Scarce. I strongly recommend reading Violent Salt’s art catalogue which contains excellent essays on the subjects of colonialism, the environment and Australia’s amnesia.)
About Sumaya Kassim
Sumaya Kassim is a writer and independent researcher. She was a co-curator for Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition ‘Birmingham and the British Empire: The Past is Now’ (2017-18), which sought to decolonise the museum’s colonial legacies. Her article chronicling the curation process, ‘The Museums Will Not Be Decolonised’ (Media Diversified, 2017) was shared widely in the sector. Her archival/textual interventions have been exhibited internationally. She has given talks across the UK at various universities and art galleries as well as museums such as the V&A, Wellcome Collection and The British Library. Her interests include but are not limited to memory, secularism, race, alternative institutions/DIY methods of dissemination, the body and the environment. She was a 2019 Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Material Cultures in Leiden. She has an essay forthcoming in the collection Cut From The Same Cloth (Unbound, 2019). She is currently working on a set of essays and a novel. For commissions or for further information, contact Sumaya on Twitter @SFkassim